Eat pizza, drink and be happy at Barbaro

Clams Casino pizza at Barbaro

When Barbaro first opened in 2013, I called it “sophisticated yet accessible” in a review shortly after it opened and praised it as a superior neighborhood pizza place.

Since then, it has grown even more comfortable in its skin as a neighborhood hangout. But it’s close enough to downtown and the hip areas near The Pearl to attract a broader clientele than most other neighborhood spots.

In practice, this means the dishes have maintained their quality, while the well-crafted cocktails make this a destination bar, too.

Barbaro’s dough comes from Bakery Lorraine, and it brings a slightly chewy texture with almost an undertone of sourdough flavor.

That complexity serves as an ideal canvas for the clever toppings that mark the best pies here. I’m talking about combos such as Clams Casino. It sounds like a funky pizza, but give it a chance. This one takes the New Haven, Connecticut specialty of a clam pizza and cranks up the volume with bits of bacon and a creamy white sauce. You can also create your own pizza, but why pass on so many satisfying combinations?

Meanwhile, the vegetable dishes often get overlooked, and they’re some of the best on the menu. I don’t care that kale salad has turned into a hipster dining cliché. The one here, with pumpkin seeds, sliced grapes, Gorgonzola and a lemon vinaigrette, is outstanding. Really — order less pizza and get more vegetables. They’re that good.

Since its opening, Barbaro has added a few main dish items that are best shared. I can vouch for the meatballs in marinara sauce and keep meaning to try the rest of that section of the menu — just as soon as I can tear myself away from the salads and pizzas.

Shrimp Paesano: A San Antonio Italian tradition

Shrimp Paesano

If there’s a classic dish that exemplifies San Antonio dining, it’s Shrimp Paesano.

It’s a favorite in this city. And when you mention it to longtime diners, especially those who grew up here, it inspires sighs and maybe even a few swoons.

 

I think it’s good. But just good. Not great, not holy-cow-this-is-amazing, but good. Better than fine, but not at great.

It starts with lightly breaded and sautéed shrimp, covered with a creamy lemon-garlic-butter sauce. The appetizer portion is just the shrimp, while the lunch and dinner includes pasta.

I get that Shrimp Paesano, is as much a piece of San Antonio comfort food as a well-made breakfast taco. And if you visit almost any locally owned Italian spot in town, it will include its own version of Shrimp Paesano.

The heritage of that dish goes back to in 1968, when a young Joe Cosniac moved to San Antonio to work at HemisFair. The following year, he and then-business partner Nick Pacelli opened the original Paesanos on McCullough Avenue. The restaurant quickly caught on. It grew into an empire of three locations, plus several other restaurants in the Paesanos Restaurant Group.

Visit any location and wait in line with with regulars and visitors who quickly turn into regulars. I get the reasons for its success: Fast, friendly service, big portions, lively atmosphere and an accessible wine list that still offers a few options for oenophiles. But I’m just as happy visiting several other places.

And when it comes to dishes, I prefer the pork osso bucco much more than the Shrimp Paesano. But with its history and several generations of happy customers, I’ll offer my respect.

Hey, Richard Marx: San Antonio welcomes vegans, too!

Vegan food in San Antonio
Kale, carrots, pepitas in cashew Caesar dressing from Pharm Table.

When you think of San Antonio food, images of tacos, enchilada plates and heaping piles of meats come to mind — not vegan cuisine.

But this city now known for its health-conscious options does indeed offer some choices for vegetarians and vegans. I’m not for a second going to argue that it rivals cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Houston or even Austin, but vegans — and people who just want to eat something without meat or animal products — can find good flavors in San Antonio.

I feel compelled to defend my home city and calm things down after singer Richard Marx tossed off a Twitter post bemoaning the lack of vegan offerings downtown — and then a talk radio host picked a Twitter fight and even insulted Marx’s wife, Daisy Fuentes.

I’m not going to wade into that fight. Instead, I’ll offer to Marx, Fuentes and other vegans living here or visiting here a list of places with vegan options:

Where to eat

  • Pharm Table It has limited hours, but the menu from chef/owner Elizabeth Johnson, a former instructor at the Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio, makes vegetables sing.
  • Moshe’s Golden Falafel Israeli-inspired falafel from Andrew Weissman, the city’s most celebrated chef. The falafel balls are good and the accompanying salads are incredible.
  • Green Vegetarian Cuisine The city’s biggest and best-known vegetarian and vegan restaurant offers a lot of options.
  •  Señor Veggie The jackfruit carnitas make good tacos.
  • Viva Vegeria Get the vegan nachos and wash them down with a cold beer.
  • 5 Points Local Vegan, vegetarian and some meat dishes, and all good.
  • Sweet Yams Organic, vegan-friendly Southern food? Yup!
  • Earth Burger Solidly made veggie burgers.

Another tip: Call ahead to some of the city’s chef-driven restaurants and ask if they can do something vegan. Already, Cured and Bliss offer a vegetable-focused daily special. If they’re not completely slammed, they’ll figure out a way to make it vegan, if you call ahead. The city’s other chef-driven restaurants could do it, too.

It does take effort

I’m not going to tell you that eating well if you’re vegan or vegetarian is easy in San Antonio. There’s not the market in San Antonio for an upscale vegan dining temple like Crossroads Kitchen. And if you’re downtown on the River Walk, remember that many of San Antonio’s visitors are families on a budget.

But this is a welcoming city. If you plan ahead and call when you can, you can have a great dining experience in San Antonio, just like the carnivores. Besides, guacamole is a naturally vegan dish. And that’s something we all can agree on.

Loving the ramen (and more) at Kimura

Kimura ramen
Shoyu ramen with pork shoulder

When I reviewed the ramen palace Kimura in 2013, I immediately loved it. Since then, I have brought my wife and son several times and still think very highly of it.

When it opened, chef/owner Michael Sohocki touted it as a ramen shop. Now, it’s an izakaya, or a Japanese bar with good food. It still offers ramen, but the menu also includes smaller bites and several hearty dishes.

Frankly, I don’t care about the nomenclature; this place rocks! The gyoza, pieces, connected by a lattice of cornstarch and water, show a note of extra care.

Yakisoba
Yakisoba

A lively yakisoba that featured stir-fried soba noodles with shredded carrot, ginger, caramelized onion and cabbage will satisfy my next noodle craving.

The katsudon, a breaded pork cutlet, brought deep richness from caramelized onion and eggs, while a touch of ginger brightened the mixture. Served on top of steamed rice, it was a hearty dish that’s ideal for a cold day. Even in the middle of a San Antonio summer, it satisfied nonetheless.

Katsudon at Kimura
Katsudon

And this time, instead of my usual long-simmered pork bones of the tonkotosu ramen, I tried the chicken and soy sauce shoyu broth. The caramelized essence from the soy sauce accented the savory notes from the chicken bones and even added a touch of subtle sweetness. Actually, I should say that my son ordered the ramen. I only got a few tastes of it.

Of course, we’re coming back. Often.

Zinc’s Crack Burger: One of the best

Zinc Burger, one of the best in San Antonio
The Zinc Burger easily ranks among the best in San Antonio.

If the Zinc Burger isn’t the best in town, it’s tops on a very short list.

The secret is umami. Lots and lots of umami.

All that umami, that savory essence, begins with the seared crust on the burger patty. Then that savoriness receives a lot of boosting from the other ingredients: smoked cheddar, tomato aioli and a Parmesean tuile.  All of those toppings are rich in umami and totally addictive. There’s a reason why people call it the Crack Burger.

The result? Rich, beefy flavor that just doesn’t quit. It’s so good, it even made Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s 50 greatest burgers.

This suggestion may be over the top, but if the folks there could add some mushrooms to the ground beef mixture, and increase that umami even more. Not that it needs anything.

Order it with a glass of a rich, red wine or a good craft beer and just bask in all that goodness.

Come to a fundraiser at La Fonda for a good cause

With all the recent disasters, there’s so much need for help right now. Even though it feels overwhelming, please consider supporting this effort:

La Fonda on Main is hosting a fundraiser Oct. 4 to support earthquake relief efforts in Mexico. Tickets cost $50 and include passed appetizers and two drinks.  Proceeds from the event will be donated to and matched by Citibanamex Compromiso Social (website in Spanish).

La Fonda on Main is at 2415 N. Main Ave.

Click here to buy tickets or visit lafondaonmain.com for more information.